Name: Ken Levine
Company: Irrational Games
Best-Known Works Include: System Shock 2 (PC), Freedom Force (PC), Tribes: Vengeance (PC), Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich (PC) Favorites
All-time Games: XCom, Rise of Nations, System Shock, Civ 3.
Now Playing: Battlefield 2, Mercenaries, Project Snowblind.
Listening to: Same old crap
Now watching: Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica (new), and the Daily Show, Entourage
Movies: Miller's Crossing, 12 Monkeys, Out of Sight
Hobbies: Running (slowly), playing guitar (poorly)
III. Technology n Experience
Question: How big of a role does the available technology play in the execution of a game design? Can you give us some specific examples?
Chris Avellone: Well, technology facilitates design and storytelling. Just like design, there are only so many programming resources to devote to tackling design issues, so you have to choose your battles and scale back your design so it falls within the technology requirements for your platform (console or PC) and your programming resources (it's great to have a 50-page spec on how radiation will work in a game, but it's much better if you leverage the existing code for poison and save the programmers two weeks of work).
Also, there's the temptation to throw every fun element you can think of into a game, and this just isn't feasible. You need to use all your programming assets to reinforce the fun factor and the key design elements of your game (preferably combat and gameplay), or focus on tools that allow more people (especially nonprogrammers) to implement content without taking programmers down.
If I had specific examples, I suppose one I would use is the ability of lightsabers in KOTOR2 to emit dynamic light. So if you were in a darkened cave with your green lightsaber, your character and the cave walls would have a faint green light cast on them, which we thought would look cool. Examining it realistically, however, we discovered problems.
One is, you could have three characters in your party all dual-wielding lightsabers (that's six colors that could be cast at any one time). The number of possible lights becomes an issue. To fix that, we would have had to rip out the renderer from the original KOTOR and make one that does multipass rendering, like in Neverwinter Nights 2 (no small task). Also, the lack of per-pixel lighting wouldn't have made the environment look too good, which was the effect we were striving for in the first place (environment wasn't tessellated enough). With a small team of programmers in the time allowed, it would have taken much more resources than the feature warranted, and there were bigger issues to tackle in the meantime.
That said, technology, in my opinion, has never gotten in the way of game design. Infocom games are still fun, even without graphics or a 3D engine or multiplayer. Technology, however, is there to enhance the design and player experience (facial animations, voice acting, animations, fully realized world, scripted reactive elements, physics-based engines, etc.).
Ken Levine: It's critically important, and becoming more and more important all the time. We've centered a lot of our development at Irrational around Unreal. That technology is great for first-person and third-person action and RPGs. I imagine it would be ill-advised to use it to build a turn-based strategy game or a flight sim, unless you were willing to make a significant investment in tools.
System Shock 2 was a good example of a title that well-leveraged its technology. When we started the project, all we knew was that we had to reuse the Thief engine for the game we were working on. We knew that engine wasn't as strong as Quake or Unreal in the visual department, so we decided Shock 2 would focus on character growth and mood.
Akira Yamaoka: More memory allows faster stress-free access to data, which we owe a lot to the advance in technology. Also, a wider range in color for the graphics is one of the key factors of bringing the visuals closer to real life. On the negative side, more capability also means more-time-consuming labor for the developers. In the future, we need to figure out a solution for this negative side of advances in technology.
Question: How has your approach to designing games changed as you've gained more experience in the job?
Avellone:It hasn't really changed. You learn to edit yourselves more. And the more you get exposed to people who play games and other genres, you gain a larger perspective on what's fun for everyone. And interfaces tend to get a lot cleaner. But beyond that, it's just a refinement of what I started doing from day one.
"In today's world of gaming, the range of age and type of players has broadened, so greater creativity is required from the game designer. One single approach will not be enough." -- Akira Yamaoka
Bleszinski: I've really seen the value in iteration. Fun is the sum of its parts. It's hitting the button and feeling the responsiveness and seeing your character move and jump. It's pulling the trigger and seeing the nice muzzle flash. It's seeing the enemy react when you shoot him. It's seeing the enemy react to the fact that you're trying to shoot him and seeing the AI dynamically adjust. All these things coming together.
These days we plan a lot more because it costs a lot more. So if I start out going, "oh we want a character that's a giant pterodactyl," then later I say, "no, let's make it a T-Rex." Then thousands of dollars have just gone out the window. You have to be careful when you change direction in this day and age. Doing more planning is the most significant difference in design methodology between being young, and now having a larger team and more experience.
Levine: I've grown to trust those around me more. I remember I once heard a designer say that he wished they had a machine that could literally transform thoughts and ideas into game designs. To me that would defeat the purpose of working in games: collaboration.
The market has also changed. Certain genres that were around when I got my start are pretty much gone now, and new ones have evolved. Game designers who don't obsessively play games are not game designers.
Yamaoka: My approach has changed from creating a traditional "video game" method to creating content on an interactive media system. In today's world of gaming, the range of age and type of players has broadened, so greater creativity is required from the game designer. One single approach will not be enough. You have to go beyond the traditional approach of creating video games [by], for instance, making it into a joint project with other media, like with film and music.
Question: What types of games do you enjoy developing most? Is it easier to work on certain genres than others? What about licensed properties, as opposed to original properties?
Chris Avellone: I enjoy working on RPGs, hands down, mostly because the story and world and characters have a higher importance than many other games (this trend is changing, however). Any genre is generally cool: sci-fi, fantasy, postholocaust. I've worked on them all and enjoyed them. I wouldn't mind doing a modern-day RPG, however.
I think it's more likely you'll be working on licensed properties in the industry than original intellectual properties. Obsidian's been lucky in the licenses we've been able to work with (Neverwinter and KOTOR2), and licenses carry the advantage of having a tone, world, and parameters established for you from the outset. The advantage of IPs is you have your own sandbox to play in, and the approval process is your own.
Ken Levine:If the brand is great, like System Shock, it's a thrill to work on it. If it's something I'm less excited about, it can be limiting. I think strategy games are generally the easiest to design, primarily because you have a mouse, a keyboard, and (most importantly) a cursor, which makes interface challenges a lot easier. Deep first-person shooters, like BioShock, are always going to be challenging to design, because you're trying to cram a lot of expression into very tight input space.
Akira Yamaoka: I enjoy creating complicated and twisted games. :-) Games that are, in a way, not suitable for the general public--[because they're too] surreal and artistic--are very fun to work on. Licensed projects have restrictions in artistic freedom, so it's not really enjoyable as a game creator.
Next: Breaking IN as a Designer